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«Jesus at home in Judaism Laurie Woods While Christians would have no hesitation acknowledging that Jesus was a Jew, the full implications of this are ...»

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Jesus at home in Judaism

Laurie Woods

While Christians would have no hesitation acknowledging that Jesus was a Jew, the full

implications of this are not generally understood. It almost goes without saying that

Jesus was a Jew. What is more, all the earliest disciples who established Christianity

were Jewish, as were the first church leaders. Jesus came from a Jewish family, was

raised in the Jewish region of Galilee, had Jewish friends, and was brought up in the

religion of Moses. All four gospel writers present Jesus as a pious Jew, who had a deep attachment to the religion of his ancestors, and who was faithful in his observance of the Law of Moses. A genuine understanding of the person and mission of Jesus requires some appreciation of the historical context and the Jewish world in which he lived. The aim of this chapter is to provide some background information and insights that will help the reader gain a clearer picture of Jesus, the pious and idealistic Jew of firstcentury Palestine.

Jesus’ Early Education Jesus would have been known from the day of his circumcision as Yeshua bar Yoseph, Jesus son of Joseph. Joseph and Mary were Law-observant Jews and saw to it that their son was raised in a healthy religious family environment. They were village people who had enough to live on and support a family, so they were not on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. The gospel writers tell us that Mary and Joseph were people of prayer who received inspiration and guidance from God (Mt 1:21-25; Lk 1:26-38).

They arranged for Jesus’ circumcision (Lk 2:21), presented Jesus in the Temple according to Jewish law as part of a purification ceremony1 (Lk 2:25-28) and, when they could, visited the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover (Lk 2:41).

As a young lad, Jesus would have received a basic education in general living skills and in the Hebrew Scriptures from his parents. Up to the age of twelve, it was customary for Jewish lads to spend most of their time in the company of their mothers and the women of their village. When he turned thirteen, a boy became officially an adult and was obliged to observe all the commandments. As a young teenager, Jesus no doubt enjoyed spending more time with Joseph and would have learned a lot from him. We can safely assume that Jesus looked up to Joseph and aspired to be like him.

It is worth reflecting on the likelihood that the relationship between Jesus and Joseph was a close and loving one. Later on, Jesus would refer to God as his father, but all his ideas of fatherhood and all the warm and devoted images he had associated with the term “father” would have been nourished by the strong bond he had with Joseph during his formative years. The loving father figures who appear in the teachings and parables of Jesus would almost certainly have been modelled on Joseph.

The emission of fluids from the body caused uncleanness and a mother became ritually unclean at childbirth. The Law obliged her to undergo a period of purification before she could be clean again (Lev.


At some point in his late teens, Jesus clearly felt called to do more with his life than remain in Nazareth as a contract worker or artisan. When we meet him in the gospels, he had left home and had embarked on a mission as a wandering charismatic preacher who was having considerable impact on a number of his fellow Palestinian Jews. At this time his knowledge of the Law of Moses and his command of Scripture were exceptional. Mark tells us (Mk 6:1-6) that, when Jesus went back to visit Nazareth, he was invited to read at the synagogue meeting and make some comments on the reading.

His words so impressed the villagers of Nazareth that they began to wonder how he had acquired such learning and wisdom. They were also puzzled by his reputation as a healer and the extraordinary gifts he seemed to have possessed.

Modern scholars speculate as to how he would have come by this learning. The gospel evidence does not suggest that he had formal training as a scribe, which would have involved becoming a disciple of a rabbi and receiving an education in the rabbinic scholarship of the day. At the same time Jesus’ teachings and disputations with the Scribes and Pharisees betray a degree of learning that was much more than just homespun wisdom. Jesus is called rabbi, “my master/teacher”, not only by his disciples (Mk 4:38, 9:38) and ordinary folk who heard him speak (Mk 9:17) but also by the learned ones themselves (Mk 12:14, 32). In addition to that, he was recognized as teaching with authority, not like the Scribes who were experts in the law (Mk 1:22). It should be remembered, though, that this title was informal in the days before the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. and did not imply that the rabbi had a formal training in scribal scholarship. It should also be remembered that Jesus had gained considerable respect and was gathering a following while he was still reasonably young.

A Jewish man in Jesus’ day might be considered an elder, with acquired wisdom at the age of 40-45. Jesus could not have been much over 30 years old when he began his public life as a wandering teacher-prophet. Here is an indication of the impression he made on his contemporaries through his personality, his behaviour and his teaching.

The first-century Jewish historian, Josephus, refers to Jesus as a “wise man” which, some scholars argue, could be tantamount to numbering him among the Jewish Sages.2 This would make Jesus typical of a number of outstanding Jewish rabbis who had humble origins and who worked with their hands to support themselves while studying.

However, this is not conclusive evidence that Jesus had a formal scribal education.

The gospels do not present a picture of Jesus reaching his maturity in Nazareth. On the contrary, he appears to follow the call to leave Nazareth and embark on a broader mission in life.3 His search for something more takes him southward out of Galilee to the company of an outstanding holy man, John the Baptizer, who was becoming known as a prophet and who had attracted a considerable following. Jesus was drawn by John’s call for repentance and a renewal of Torah spirituality, in preparation for the approaching reign of God, and he became a disciple of John. John and his disciples would have been a spiritual family for Jesus, who would have found a satisfying sense of purpose and spiritual direction in this company.4 Jesus’ own outlook on life and on religion as a way to God would have been shaped, to some extent, by this experience. It is after John’s arrest that Jesus begins his independent mission and gathers other disciples around him. At this point he focuses his teaching on the reign of God, accompanied by an interpretation of the Law of Moses that bears his own distinctive stamp.

David Flusser, Jesus (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1997), 30.

Luke interprets this as a call for Jesus to be about his “father’s business” (Lk 2:45).

Bruce Chilton, Rabbi Jesus. An Intimate Biography (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 49.

Jesus the Law-Observant Jew Not only does the upbringing of Jesus mark him as undeniably Jewish, but his behaviour, his attitudes and his teachings prove that he was a pious Palestinian Jew, who was not only devoted to the observance of the Torah of Moses but who sought to impart to others a Torah spirituality that would strengthen people’s relationship with God. The gospels show us that Jesus very quickly gained the reputation of being a prophet. He referred to himself as a prophet when he experienced rejection in his home village of Nazareth (Mk 6:1-6) and his activity as a wandering charismatic preacher fits the general pattern of many of the classical prophets (cf. Lk 24:19). Like the prophets of former times, Jesus saw a need to work toward correcting error and he set out to show his contemporaries an authentic way to spiritual fulfilment and quality life in the sight of God.

One of the most notable characteristics of the Hebrew prophets was that they practised what they preached. They were all pious people who were faithful to the Law of Moses.

Jesus was no exception. He observed the Sabbath and was a familiar visitor to synagogues, particularly those in Capernaum (Mk 1:21) and Nazareth (Mk 6:2). The fact that he was asked to read and preach in synagogues is an indication of how people respected him as a Law-observant Jew (Mk 1:39, Mt 12:9). The evangelists point out that Jesus observed Passover. He made the pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem and in fact became quite irate at the behaviour of the merchants in the outer court (Mk 11:15-17). Matthew says that Jesus was actually teaching in the Temple precincts (Mt 21:23) without being molested or ordered out of the area. Jesus also observed Passover by eating the customary ritual meal with his friends (Mk 14:12-16).

Matthew (9:20) relates the story of the woman who was cured of her haemorrhage after she touched the tassels (tsitsiyot) on Jesus’ cloak. Mark also tells how people flocked to Jesus, hoping to be cured of illnesses just by touching the tassels of his cloak (6:56).

The fact that Jesus wore tassels is an indication of his dedication to the observance of Torah. People who came into contact with Jesus would have quickly been suspicious of his teaching if his wearing of tassels was not matched by his adherence to the Mosaic Law.

Jesus insisted that the requirements of the Law be respected when he told the lepers he cured to go and show themselves to the priests (Lk 17:14). This was in keeping with the law that required a priest to verify such a cure (Lev 13:2-8, 14:2-3). Matthew 17:24records the occasion in Capernaum when Peter was asked if Jesus payed the halfshekel tax that contributed to the maintenance of the Temple. Peter said he did, thereby testifying to Jesus’ respect for law. One could even go further and say that Jesus was in many respects a conservative in his attitude to Torah. His attitude toward Gentiles is typical of a conservative Jew of his day. When the Syrophoenician woman approached him asking him to cure her daughter Jesus responded with a rather harsh remark: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mk 7.27). This remark came from his conviction that his mission was only to the people of Israel and not to Gentiles: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt 15:21). However, in this particular case the intellectual jousting implicit in the woman’s reply struck a positive chord in Jesus and he was lured beyond the boundary of his original purpose when he cured the woman‘s daughter.

Jesus’ attitude to Gentiles is typical of conventional Palestinian Jews of his day. On another occasion a Roman centurion in Capernaum asked Jesus to cure his slave who was near death. In some early manuscripts, Jesus asks, “Am I to come and cure him?” (Mt 8:7). There is a note of hesitation, here indicating Jesus’ unwillingness to incur ritual uncleanness by going into the house of a Gentile. The nice touch in this story is that the centurion is sensitive to Jesus’ feelings and insists that he need not come into his house, but that he could simply say the word and the servant would be healed.

While not wishing to be ungracious, Jesus would have felt uncomfortable at the prospect of entering a Gentile house. In both these accounts, Jesus avoids laying himself open to uncleanness.

The gospels say virtually nothing about visits Jesus might have made to such cosmopolitan centres as Sepphoris,5 Tiberias,6 and the Hellenistic cities of the Decapolis7. The probability is that Jesus avoided ritual uncleanness by staying out of these places and confined himself to Jewish towns and villages. Further evidence that Jesus kept away from Gentiles and focused his attention on his fellow Jews is revealed when he sends the Twelve out on their mission. He limits their activity to the people of Israel: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:5)8. This also indicates that Jesus’ sole missionary concern was to bring the message of how to enter the reign of God to his fellow Jews.

The Teachings of Jesus Mark tells us that Jesus “went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons” (Mk 1:39; Mt 4:23). Matthew also adds that when Jesus left Galilee he “went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. Large crowds followed him and he cured them there” (19:1f.). Even allowing for some enthusiastic exaggeration on the part of the evangelists, it is obvious that Jesus was offering an approach to Jewish life and religion that was attractive to many people. Little expressions in the gospels like “everyone is searching for you” (Mk 1:36); “the crowds were astounded at his teaching” (Mt 7:28); “such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there” (Mt 13:2); “when the crowds were increasing he began to say” (Lk 11:29) show that the teachings of Jesus not only made sense to those who listened but were filling a great need in the lives of ordinary Jewish people. We also know that Jesus taught in open outdoor spaces (Mt 5:1; Lk 6:17; Mk 2:13, 6:34-36; Lk 5:3), which was not unusual in Jewish rabbinic tradition.

Sepphoris was a large Greco-Roman city that had been destroyed by the Romans and was being rebuilt by Herod Antipas as Jesus was growing up. It is about an hour’s walk (6 km) from Nazareth and functioned as the administrative capital of Galilee.

Tiberias was built by Herod Antipas who established it as his capital in the years 18-20 CE. It is situated on the on the south-western shore of the Sea of Galilee and Herod named it after the Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar. The population was largely Gentile although some wealthy Jews would have been attracted by the government offices and the “high society” there. Pious Jews would have avoided Tiberias because it was built on the site of an ancient cemetery and was therefore unclean.

The Decapolis (Greek: “ten cities”) was the region situated in the Roman province of Syria, east of the Jordan extending from Damascus to Philadelphia. In this region there was a league of ten Hellenistic cities that had been set up for strategic reasons after the Roman occupation in 63 BCE.

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